Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The Elephant in the Room: Fear and Embarrassment


You remember the story of the Emperor’s new clothes, right? No one can see the suit, but rather than speak up and admit the truth, they remain silent and let the Emperor embarrass himself. In The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life Eviatar Zerubavel, Board of Governors Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, explores the social and political underpinning of silence and denial. Zerubavel helps us understand why we ignore truths that are known to all of us. In the excerpt below Zerubavel looks at why we are silent. Later today we will look at why breaking the silence is so tough. Read a Q & A with Zerubavel here.

According to many psychologists, denial stems from our need to avoid pain. When awareness of something particularly distressful threatens our psychological well-being, we often activate inner floodgates that block the disturbing information from entering our consciousness. This point is sensitively portrayed in the film Music Box, in which a loving daughter tries somehow to “explain it away” when faced with growing evidence of the war atrocities committed by her father.

9780195332605.jpgAs a form of denial, silence certainly helps us avoid pain. The fact that something is considered “too terrible for words” indeed often makes it literally unspeakable. That explains the heavy silence that usually surrounds atrocities. “We don’t talk about them… because they’re too horrific.” Many Holocaust survivors, for example, thus refrain from sharing their traumatic experiences with their children to avoid the terrible pain they evoke. Grandparents and half-siblings who died during those “unmentionable years” thus often remain wrapped in a blanket of silence.

As some of those survivors refer to their horrific time in the Nazi death camps as “the war,” identifying such euphemisms may help uncover conspiracies of silence by highlighting what they consider unmentionable. Yet a careful examination of euphemisms also seems to show that trauma is only one of the factors that produce silence. Indeed, most conspiracies of silence are generated by the two main reasons we actually use euphemisms, namely fear and embarrassment.

When facing a frightening situation, we often resort to denial. In fact, early reports of Nazi massacres of Jews were dismissed by many Jews in Europe as sheer lies. As a result, frightening information often becomes essentially undiscussable. As so chillingly exemplified by the numerous bystanders who silently witnessed the blatant implementation of the “Final Solution,” people who live in police states become increasingly reluctant to publicly acknowledge the brutality that surrounds them by discussing it with others. Fear is also one of the main reasons underlying the abundance of euphemisms used in reference to the terminally ill (“when this is over”) and the dead (“passed away,” “gone”) as well as the ominous silence surrounding the specter of a nuclear war.

Sex, too, is often considered a somewhat threatening and therefore unmentionable subject. A former seminarian describes the prohibitive silence surrounding, for example, the sexual life of Catholic clergy (not to mention the homoerotic form it often takes):

Seminary teaching on purity . . . warned, cajoled, threatened, satirized, but it did not describe. The thing itself was often left in the dark . . . The tense silence about sex was perhaps nowhere more noticeable than after dismissals. When someone was sent away for failing to demonstrate a vocation to celibacy, little or nothing was said. Seminarians just disappeared. The assigned place in choir closed up. The room or dorm bed was cleaned and someone else was moved into it . . . [Sex] was too awful or ugly or threatening to be spoken.

Yet as illustrated by hushed-up instances of illegitimacy, teen pregnancy, or infidelity, the silence surrounding sex also stems from shame, as did much of the silence originally surrounding the Holocaust. (Thus, for example, during the 1950s, German children usually avoided asking their fathers what they did during the war, while at school German history often “stopped at Bismarck.”)

Yet silence is also generated by the somewhat milder form of shame we call embarrassment, as when a group of scholars are asked to evaluate a well-liked yet obviously unproductive colleague, when pastors discover incidents of domestic violence in their own parish, or when co-workers watch aging physicians lose their clinical touch. Consider also hushed-up instances of suicide, mental illness, or alcohol abuse within families, as when a young child comes home “with his mother and younger brother to find his father passed out in the living room with furniture in disarray and dishes scattered all around him . . .[N]o one [says] a word while the mess [is] quietly cleaned up… Nothing [is] said the following morning either.” Equally illustrative in this regard are Israel’s official silence about the destruction of Arab villages during its War of Independence and the scant attention paid by the American media to Irish-Americans’ role in helping finance Irish terror in Britain or to the fact that the senior member of the United States Senate, Robert Byrd, is a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. Along similar lines, consider also Western intellectuals’ silence about the horrors of Stalinism during the 1930s (or Arab intellectuals’ silence about Iraq’s brutal occupation of Kuwait in 1990, for that matter) as well as African leaders’ obvious reluctance to publicly acknowledge President Robert Mugabe’s dismal civil rights record in Zimbabwe.

Needless to say, the distinction between conspiracies of silence that are generated by pain, fear, shame, and embarrassment is strictly analytical. After all, as we have seen, the silence surrounding the Holocaust, for example, has in fact been a product of both pain, fear, and shame. A combination of both fear and embarrassment likewise generates silence in situations where an incompetent fellow employee also happens to be the boss’s son.

Recent Comments

  1. […] Virginia University The Elephant in the Room: Fear and Embarrassment » This Summary is from an article posted at OUPblog on Monday, October 15, 2007 This article’s […]

  2. […] Original post by OUPblog […]

  3. […] Earlier today we introduced you to The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life by Eviatar Zerubavel. Below is a second excerpt from the book which looks at why breaking the silence is so very difficult. […]

  4. […] Earlier today we introduced you to The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life by Eviatar Zerubavel. Below is a second excerpt from the book which looks at why breaking the silence is so very difficult. […]

Comments are closed.